Russia’s parliamentary elections, held last weekend, were a victory for the government. Pro-Kremlin parties appear — and the qualifier is important — to have won a commanding share of seats in the 450-member Duma. The immediate benefactors of the vote are President Boris Yeltsin and his prime minister, Mr. Vladimir Putin. The celebrations should be cautious, however: Unknowns predominate, and the elation felt in government circles could quickly evaporate if the war in Chechnya turns sour.
Preliminary results from Russia’s third post-Soviet parliamentary elections show the two main government-backed parties claiming 32.5 percent, almost one-third, of the vote. Although the Communists still have the largest block of seats in the Duma, they are only slightly ahead of Unity (24.2 percent to 23.4 percent), and the number of their representatives are projected to fall from 157 to 111.
The key electoral development is the centrists’ surge in strength. According to projections, they will take more than 180 seats in the Duma. The center bloc consists of Unity, the party closest to Mr. Putin; Fatherland-All Russia, which is led by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and is in third place with about 12 percent; the Union of Right Forces, headed by former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, which has about 9 percent and is the second party supported by the government; and Yabloko, which is led by Mr. Grigory Yavlinsky, an economist, with just over 6 percent.
The center’s rise could shift the political dynamics in Russia. While the Russian Constitution gives the president extraordinary power, the Duma can hold up legislative programs. It has blocked economic reforms and ratification of arms-control agreements with the United States. Now, for the first time, Mr. Yeltsin’s government will be supported by a majority in the Duma. In theory, that will permit a reformist government to deliver on policies long promised and never implemented.
Questions hang over that simple assertion. It assumes that the government is reformist in inclination. Its rhetoric has been liberal, but then, it had to be, given Russia’s international commitments. It could promise change, knowing that Parliament would block it. Now, that excuse has vanished. It is also doubtful that business interests behind the government support many of the economic reforms, especially if they would level the playing field.
The second unknown is the disposition of the independent candidates, who will hold a little over one-quarter of the seats in Parliament. They are assumed to support the government, and they probably will — at least, as long as its policies are popular. If public opinion shifts, they will not be far behind.
Much then depends on the course of the war in Chechnya. The fact that Moscow seems to be winning is the chief influence on last weekend’s vote. How else could Unity, a party that has only been in existence for two months, defeat popular politicians such as Mr. Luzhkov and Mr. Primakov? Similarly, the strong showing of the Union of Right Forces owes much to Kremlin support. Its leaders were once held responsible for the sad state of Russia’s economy. During the campaign, they voiced strong support for Moscow’s tough line in Chechnya. That, more than its economic policies, won the party votes. If the war turns, it will lose support; alternatively, it will quit supporting the Kremlin. (Yabloko’s showing proves the point: It was the only explicitly antiwar party on the ballot, and it lost half its seats.)
That interpretation suggests that Mr. Putin, touted as a big winner in the vote, is still in a precarious position. He has no political philosophy and no ideas; his popularity is a result of current circumstances. If the war goes badly, he will pay. In other words, he remains a creature of Mr. Yeltsin, and will continue to serve at his sufferance.
The real winner, then, is Mr. Yeltsin, and the strong-man model of leadership for which he stands. Russians apparently do not appreciate the irony of that, given the president’s precarious health. Tough talk — and, better still, results — are what the Russian people want. As long as the price to be paid is not too high, patriotic nationalism will continue to beguile Russian voters.
Some see the results signaling the arrival of de Gaulle-style politics in Moscow. Others see Mr. Putin becoming a Pinochet-type figure, opening the door to Chile’s authoritarian capitalism. Both outcomes mirror the Kremlin’s optimistic reading of the election; all are premature. Russian politics are a hostage of the war. Its outcome is uncertain; so is Russia’s future.
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